The night before their competition, and rather than bed down early with all of the good little riders -- in preparation for the early dawn trial – Aster, Gneiss and Hemlock were gathered around a table at the Glory Club.
The Glory Club was a pub and inn combination located in the Dais’ worshiper's tribute town. The entire community was based around stryx riders and their completions of the Tribute to Dais – a series of two races, one on foot and the other through the sky. Unlike the Tribute to Galyx, which could take stryx and their partners almost anywhere, the Tribute to Dais happened along this one particular cliff-face and through this very specific valley. There was room for debate regarding who came first, the worshipers, the villagers or the riders, but the symbiosis was undeniable. Riders could arrive a day or two before their scheduled tribute and they would have places to stay, eat, buy weapons and mend tack. The Dais worshipers got a crowd who was here for the purpose of pleasing their deity so tithing was common and morning mass was often packed.
Far from such wholesome things as the holy temples or legitimate things as the local shops was the Glory Club.
The walls contained hundreds of conversations told in loud voices with all of them competing to dominate the ruckus atmosphere and the tinkle of glass on glass. Bar maids squeezed amidst a sea of warm bodies attempting to reach the loudest of the cries for ‘one more’ and ‘another’. The crowd was young riders for the most part. Everything from apparent humans to beings with barely any form. Skulls floating on shadows. Individuals made of nothing more than they were wrapped in. Naked, colourful devils swaying to the drunken tune of absent music. The high ceiling beams were hidden in a high fog of smoke which twisted in its artistic way, forming curls in the dim night light. All the smoke came from patron pipes and table ‘incense’ burners. None came from the large fireplace, nor the pot still hanging above it that by this time had been scraped nearly clean. The Glory Club was very modern in its style: white walls, dark wood, reddish carpet by the door. Around half the room ran a low wooden bar, polished to perfection with an ornate design along the under-hang depicting the rise of the sun near to the door and setting near the stairs that lead upward. Along the wall was every hue of amber liquid sat in stained glass bottles and these were being served liberally across the bar and around the room.
There were nicer bars in the tribute town. Quieter places to sleep as well. In fact the farther in town you went, and closer to the temples, the more well-appointed your room and better your alcohol. The Glory Club had one thing above those places, however, and it was that thing that attracted Aster and his fellows to this place. The Glory Club existed in a sort of infamy as the one place where those who wanted to could gamble on the Dais Tribute Race. When every rider who intended to fly had been signed up on of the less scrupulous officials (no one could say who) brought a record of the riders and stryx to the bar for locals and competitors to lay bets on. Odds tended to favor harpia’s for their strength and stride, with clever corvas getting reasonable odds and tytos scattered randomly depending on lineage and reputation.
Riders rarely impacted the odds that were given to birds unless they were rookery masters or had a reputation for breeding and owning faster birds. A few points advantage were also often given to riders whose composition left them largely weightless, but these beings were few and odd enough that there was as of yet so true standard set in place for their impact on a race’s outcome. The variable was too immeasurable.
“They gave garbage odds to Biter,” Gneiss observed, returning from the counter with the trios odds, “for a harpia, anyway.”
“What about the crows?” Hemlock asked, after a moment of silence proved Aster’s disinterest.
“They gave Creep something decent, because of his size, and Pester terrible odds. Same reason. I don’t know if there’s some sort of bat wing racism also involved but people don’t seem confident he’s even going to make it to the end of the canyon.”
“So if he places…?” Hemlock asked, nudging Aster.
“Big pay out,” Gneiss confirmed, “but it is Pester. Pester is not the bird we wanted to put money on. He may have the endurance, and a good bust speed, but even opened up he’s still…a tiny bird.”
“The Dais race includes a level of gladiatorial combat,” Aster explained, looking up from the stein he’d been staring into for minutes, “it is not something a lot of the riders seem to engage in, but it is completely within the very shaky rules of the race.”
“We’re knocking out other riders?” Hemlock asked, more to confirm than from any surprise or concern.
“We’re knocking other riders off,” Aster asserted, “you are going to cling to the bat for dear life and ride it like you stole it…Even though Gneiss did. Speaking of which, they’re not here are they?”
“They woman and her retinue of hoof-footed whores? No. No sign of them on the lists.”
“Good,” said Hemlock.
“Pity,” Aster disagreed.
There was an additional moment or two of silence before Aster waved Gneiss away from the table.
“Place the bet.”
The hammer of the sun beat down on the untempered souls unfortunate enough to lay between it and the anvil of the stone plains. Now and again a vicious wind would howl in from the ocean in the west, or a roiling cloud of humid air would boil over from the forests of the north east. If they managed to do this at the same time, merging together in the night, they would become a volatile downpour in the electrically charged air. Water would pour down over earth so parched that it required time to drink. It would pool in every divot, a skin of dust swirling at its edges. The earth birthed dormant toads and lizards that bred in a frenzy while lightning flashed overhead. Snakes and spiders and scorpions took cover, and mammals appeared, drinking deeply in nooks of sheltered stone. When the storm passed and dawn came, the sun rose on lush bloom as the earth steamed with damp and fragrance and life.
This was the land of Dais and his people.
It had been many years that the Tribute had taken place amidst the beauty of the northern plains. The lush flora that lived among the spires and arches of the red mesas. Noble walls carved by nature. Sandstone flanks than tunneled the wind. Slithering in a too thin line down the centre, a river -- like a thin silver ribbon. This river supported the track’s only regular greenery, as along this winding river in a dusty bed fringed by green trees. Arid grandeur, in a sea of desert, amber-gold rocks, alcoves, rugged canyon, somber gateway, soft-tinted rock, barren rock, springs in canyon walls crowded with green leaves, walls of clay and silt, clinging bushes. These the canyon’s only usual inheritance, but now a row of stryx, silhouetted in black velvet against the peculiar purple of a pre-dawn sky. Lined up a few yards back from the canyon’s lip.
Aster, Hemlock and Gneiss had spread themselves out along the line, giving them a better perspective on the long line up of competition. It was difficult to imagine how they would contend with some of the more formless or oddly featured riders, but only Hemlock seemed to be concerned about that and he was not the one responsible for doing it. He was standing beside Pester, wedged in between a harpia nearly twice his size and a royal tyto whose feathers made him about twice his own size. Biter was sandwiched between two slightly smaller, browner harpias. A nocturnal bird, his eyes continually drifted closed against the order of his rider. Even the fervor mounting in the daylight birds around him couldn’t coax ardor out of him as he waited.
The first glimmers of radiant orange began to sear off the drowsy night. The purple peeled back, the stars winked out, and just out over the edge of the horizon a banner-bearer, mounted aboard her brightly tinted tyto, dove a steep u shape across the mouth of the valley – signalling the race.
There was a lot to be said for the peacefulness of the nokt tribute. Especially for those who had participated in the tribute to dais.
Scratching feet abounded. A hundred talons were suddenly seeking quick purchase in unyielding mesa stone, and among them all manner of smaller creature began a harried run. Buffeted by the spread and preemptive beating of wings, Gneiss fought to keep his feet- never mind keep up with the panicked pace of a now very much awake Biter. The big harp screamed a challenge of war echoed by a dozen of his brethren and with a few more less than dignified hops he flung himself headfirst from the edge of the stone, Gneiss clinging to his side by nothing but the strap-and-handle of a makeshift saddle.
Hemlock’s boots slipped in loose red sand, and as he watched the chest of other birds pass his peripheral vision on one side he noticed that Pester’s odd ‘four-footed’ gait was bringing them out ahead of several competitors. Hemlock looked on in terror as those who had charged ahead of him poured off the cliff in free fall dives, and a moment of clarity consumed him. He desperately wanted to stop, but the rumble of the ground promised a very real trampling if he dared to. With a sharp inhalation Hemlock realized that the ground had ceased to be, and that his body now flailed in the open air. The whoosh and whirl of so many unhelpful birds bustling by him filled his ears, and his stomach rose to his throat. Something tipped him, brushed against him forcefully, and he began a frantic spin that stopped as immediately as it began. A small, streamlined bat-bird had crept beneath him and to it he clung as tenaciously to it as Pester ever had to anyone else.
From the corner of his eye, Hemlock could see Biter. It was not too difficult to pick the big black-and-white out, not only because of his size, but because the vicious bird had already chosen an enemy for himself. In the midst of diving, and while Gneiss was still climbing into position, Biter had grabbed at a corva plummeting past him. A flashy red and yellow number who was barrel rolling through the fall had caught the haria’s eye, and had apparently earned Biter’s ire. His mottled claws had attempted to snatch her long tail feathers. The two were just erupting into a back and forth screaming match, both riders drawing swords, when Pester pulled up sharply. Hemlock’s intestinal tract both resented and regretted this decision immensely.
What had been a barely controlled plunge towards sharp stones and sparse plants became a vision of breaching blue sky. Wings unfurled and flapped creating an airborne tapestry of colorful feathers, everyone pulling up and away at different heights and speeds. Perilous portions completed, as far as most riders were concerned, the lot had begun unfurling their wings, leveling out, climbing the canyon walls on the low valley’s currents.
A few moments peace, as everyone began to find their place in the pack.
Then, much more quickly than things had calmed down, they became chaotic.
Pester had been travelling in a mid-way pack of stryx which were within sight of the front runners but who rode well behind the fastest birds. The tiny corva was surrounded by mostly mid-sized harpias (perhaps three of them) a few other corvas and large black tyto who was well ahead of where anyone had placed him. There was some movement amoung the travelling cloud, stryx drifting ahead of and behind each other as they conserved energy for an eventual sprint, but the flying lacked that sense of severe competition, at least for the length of a few minutes.
Pester dove, which was the start of it. Dipping his head and tucking his body, the brown crow sunk beneath the band of competitors so suddenly it prompted a yelp from Hemlock. When the little engineer had finished his exclamation, however, he would notice that he wasn’t the only one who’d screeched. One of the harps who’d been drifting along beside him was diving too, and though Pester began an immediate bank away from it Hemlock could make out the two large arrows sticking into it – each less than a foot from the rider’s seat.
There was a second scream, and the ruffle of feathers as two or three birds began an in-air scuffle while the others attempted to pull away. A spotted black corva, and there was no need to guess who it might be, was gripping a smaller corva by the face and making several gnashes at the poor bird’s surprised rider, which his own rider thunked an arrow into the thigh of someone who’d dare intend to aid.
“Eyes up, Hemmy,” Aster called, though he’d have been smarter to issue Pester himself the instruction.
“I’m going to die!” The little turf-toned engineer shouted back.
“You had better not,” Aster replied, mid-scuffle, “We have money on you.”
The brown bat banked sharply to the side again as the black tyto and its rider, incensed by the violent break out, had swung down to pursue the likely involved bat-stryx. They made several dives, forcing Pester to expend energy ducking and climbing again, but with the rider brandishing a sword Pester was more interested in keeping distance than pace for now. After only a few seconds of evasive maneuvers, yet another arrow dug itself deep into the back of the pursuing rider. He doubled over, and was visible on the back of his tyto only a moment longer as Creep descending upon the smaller stryx’s back with both feet. A flash of black on black feathers, and suddenly the injured stranger was plucked free of saddle and all. The tyto immediately lost any interest in Pester, who was free to climb again now that the tyto had to follow Creep a few seconds to regain possession of its rider.
The black corva banked back around towards the remaining harpias, who had wisely attempted to pull ahead of Pester, Creep and the miniature sky war they were unleashing. The two corvas pursued them, Creep trilling proudly in a flash of blood smeared bird teeth. He caught the first harp by the tail a few times, annoying it more than slowing it. Aster let a few arrows loose, but only managed to breeze by primary feathers with the effectiveness of a passing cloud. It wasn’t until Biter appeared, rumbling up from below like a whale beneath a half-scuttled ship, that the harp’s faced a tangible threat. An aerial one-on-two commenced the black-and-white already bloody along the legs and stomach but still boiling over with asperity. Creep flew in to assist, targeting eyes and riders, as Pester was pushed ahead.
The little brown corva argued to go back. Beak open he made continual ‘check-up’ screeches to his brother, who continued to cry war. It was only with heel given that he made his move on the front runners, nearing the tail end of the group just as Creep quit the first fight. Black wings beating a furious course, the freckled crow brought Aster near enough the front runners just in time for him to catch the back corva slacking and sink an arrow into the meat at the base of its tail. The bird fell low, and slowed, which enabled the clingy Pester. With practiced grace he stepped upon the enemies back, taking several small steps before grasping the startled rider in his foot. Jerked loose from their straps that individual was tossed backward and discarded in the length of a breath, and Pester continued his terrorizing trip towards the front.
Their sky-war had brought Pester within a hair’s breadth of the placings, but the end of the valley was creeping up on them and the sprint had begun. Front runners were pulling not only ahead of Pester, but too far ahead of Creep or Biter for them to continue interfering. Aster fired a few parting arrows which fell fruitlessly earthward. They had done all they could, and now both stryx were simply tasked with finishing. Pester had been given as good a chance as they could give him.
Hemlock had opened Pester up. Leather wings beat as fast as they were able.
The sun had breached the horizon. Bit by bit, it covered the pearl morning haze with a pale, pure light. The first orange hued rays of sunrise kissing the canyon stones and rubble with the same loving care as an undertaker might lay the recently departed. Eye fully open, awake and alert as he could be, Dais was treated to a show of violent competition, strength and vigor.
Pester snapped at any bird that drew near to him, but no one else engaged. They were too consumed with pumping their wings. Pushing harder and harder towards the quickly approaching finish line. Both stryx and rider were running low on ideas, and Pester was additionally beginning to grow short on stamina. Then, as a harpia of moderate size began to pull past the failing corva in a drive for the front, Pester fell back voluntarily. Lagging a bit, then driving ahead, the stryx made a targeted grab and in a split second decision gripped the larg-ish bird’s legs with his grasping little toes and the bird’s barrel with his wings. This was very alarming for Hemlock, who had no idea about this plan and also now found himself upside down and attached to a much larger bird.
To the harpia and its trainer’s credit, the bird remained focused on flying forward, though the rider had a long list of choice things to shout down at Hemlock. As Pester clung, the harp shifted its feet in attempt to dislodge the little parasite from its undercarriage. The stryx went on flapping as hard as it could while pawing and plucking at the little bat-corva – whose responds was to squeak and nip. Then, at the last necessary moment, he let go.
Not let go. Pushed off.
Pester pulled himself forward along the harp’s chest and shoved off of its twiddling talons, twisted beneath its shadow. Flapping in frantic attempt to keep his lift, the bat-bird pulled ahead of its chariot in a show of cheating yet unheard of by most. Worse still, as the ending banner flapped furious declaration of the race’s end a first glance look would say that Pester had robbed his unwilling partner of a third place finish.
The rules to the dais race may have been shaky, but by the time Creep and Biter had finished the race and landed there would already be no sign of Hemlock. He had been called aside for a discussion with the tribute’s overseeing officials, which was something he, Aster and Gneiss expected would be a an ongoing theme.